Editor's Note: Learning From History


"I did read the review and thought it rather contradicted the title of your magazine. Among other things it…completely misstated the thesis of my book. It seems that anything can get into print." This sort of curt missive from offended authors—including the clever gibe that reason is somehow unreasonable—accounts for a good chunk of my professional correspondence.

What makes this January 16, 2001, e-mail particularly memorable is that it came from historian Michael Bellesiles, author of the discredited book Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. Bellesiles is referring to Joyce Malcolm's widely read, devastating critique, which appeared in our January 2001 issue. Malcolm, the author of To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right and Guns and Violence: The English Experience, was one of the very first reviewers to catalog the mistakes that would eventually bring about Bellesiles' spectacular demise.

At the time he wrote me, Bellesiles was riding so high that he didn't have to engage his critics in any serious way. Arming America argued that contrary to traditional accounts, guns were relatively rare in America until the mid-19th century. Glowing reviews hailed it as a "myth-buster" that "changes everything" we thought we knew about the history of firearms in these United States. Champions proclaimed that the book had "inescapable policy implications" that would make contemporary debates about gun control more "fact-based and rational." Just a few months after Malcolm's reason review, Arming America took home the Bancroft Prize, the most prestigious award given to history books.

How things have changed. As charges of misrepresented and faked sources mounted, Bellesiles' employer, Emory University, convened an outside panel of experts to look into the matter. After the panel released its findings last fall, Bellesiles resigned. In December, Columbia University, which awards the Bancroft Prize, rescinded the honor. In January, Alfred A. Knopf announced it would no longer sell the book. Maybe anything can get into print, but staying in print seems to be a different matter.

In this issue's cover story, "Disarming History" (page 22), Malcolm provides the definitive account of the Bellesiles controversy; she also looks at scandals involving the award-winning historians Joseph Ellis, Stephen Ambrose, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Malcolm draws many lessons from these cases, none more important than this one: It is "essential…that historians take their critical role seriously and always place it before their political inclinations."

Not long ago, The Arizona Republic said that "reason likes to clobber…falsehoods and misconceptions with a critical sledgehammer." Our cover story certainly does that, as do other pieces in this issue. Check out "Big Fat Fake" (page 40), which reveals "the sorry state of science journalism" as it relates to coverage of the popular Atkins Diet, and "Dixiecrats Triumphant" (page 16), which will forever alter your understanding of the "idealist" Woodrow Wilson.